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“Piano-Forte”: Fluid, Hand-Made, Low-Tech Animation, Inspired by Robert Breer

By Pell Osborn

As a graduate student in 1973-74, I first watched the animation of Robert Breer, most memorably his wonderful 1957 abstract short, “A Man and His Dog Out for Air.” The playful changes of direction, thrust and scale, the abstract elements in constant transition, the brief but riveting appearances of the titular Man and his Dog, all left an indelible crease in my brain.

Reared on the raucous action of cartoons by the Warner Brothers and Fleischer Studios, and amazed by the technical heights the Disney studio scaled, I found in Breer’s “A Man and His Dog Out for Air” a great draught of freedom, a scruffy, energizing revelation.

“In addition to everything else, animation can do this, too?!” I thought…

My animation teacher, Eric Martin, introduced the class to Breer’s highly effective, low-tech approach: Breer used 4”x 6” index cards with a minimum of technical clutter. For maximum smoothness and minimal expense, I’ve championed this approach ever since.

Always seeking smooth motion – what I consider the essence of good animation – I loved rotoscoping, the frame-by-frame tracing of gestures from live-action film or video into animation artwork. (the Fleischers’ Koko the Clown, Disney’s Snow White and the Blue Fairy from ”Pinocchio” — all were rotoscoped.)

Robert Breer was the first person I encountered who had figured it out. We corresponded briefly. He sent me a sketch of the rotoscope set-up he used on two of his other experimental films, “Gulls and Buoys” and “Fuji.”  With his sketch, I cobbled together my own rotoscope.

Then I spent three months laboriously tracing, frame-by-frame, Super 8mm footage I’d taken of two popular street artists, Don and Lana, who juggled in Harvard Square. Mixed in were 16mm footage I rotoscoped of W.C. Fields (the famous comedian, also an accomplished juggler) and other Super 8 movies I’d taken of Francisco “El Gran” Picasso, the flamboyant juggler then with the Ringling Brothers Circus, who, among other stunts, juggled four ping-pong balls with his mouth!

As part of the animation class, we meticulously read soundtracks. In my case, I read the beats of Jess Stacy’s buoyant piano solo from the 1938 Carnegie Hall recording of the Benny Goodman Orchestra playing “Sing Sing Sing.” With the beat sheet in hand, I carefully in-betweened, filled and matched the picture to as many beats as I could.

The result, “Piano-Forte,” my “thesis” film for the animation class, came out great.

It was selected to screen in competition at the International Animation Film Festival in New York City.

Someone handed me the program for the Festival. Animation festival posterThere was “Piano-Forte,” listed right next to Chuck Jones’s “A Cricket in Times Square,” and I remember thinking, “Wow! A person could make a living doing this!”

So, I took a leap of faith, and, in the words of Richard Williams, “I picked the most expensive medium that takes the longest time that you can get and the reward is that you can play God with it. You can do anything you like with it. You have total control of all the elements.” And by expensive, I now know, Williams doesn’t mean expensive monetarily. He means that Animators Playing God pay for the privilege with a massive investment of time – sacks of time, stacks of time, reams of time, canyons and oceans of time.

“Live-action filmmakers,” I tell my students nowadays, “just point the camera and capture stuff.  Animators, on the other hand, create everything we see onscreen — stitch-by-stitch, step-by-step, field-by-field, frame-by-frame, moment-by-moment. And that takes time.”

Fluid, hand-made, low-tech animation looks like nothing else. And it takes a ton of time to produce. It is wonderful indeed that such smooth and engrossing movement can originate with such humble materials as a stack of index cards!

So, I hope you enjoy “Piano-Forte,” which, from its modest origins as a student film has gone on to screen at film festivals and art salons, to open dance recitals and neighborhood screenings and annual meetings (for the International Jugglers Association); and to give us a few moments to consider, occasionally, what animation can do, even at its most basic level.

One Response so far

Pell, I remember Charlestown, Li’l Kitty, Mars, & lunchtime in the North End then meandering back to the Science Museum! Long ago but not forgotten!
Glad to learn about all you have done!!

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